Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Nathan Thomas

They say that everyone on Earth is connected within six degrees of separation.  For a fact, I know that I’m closer than six degrees to Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, and Fidel Castro, among others.  I’m not within the range of these notables myself.  I have lived a fairly quiet life.  But I have known people who have enriched my life by their presence in it. 

This is certainly true of my life in the theatre.  

When I started out doing plays in school, I had a teacher in Junior High named Jean Craven.  She relied on enthusiasm of students to put on shows.  We did little plays for in-school audiences.  There was very little scenery – there was no money for scenery.  We had multi-colored light bulbs in racks over our heads.  There was an ancient follow-spot in the rear of the balcony.  I’m given to believe that Ms. Craven had aspired to be a hoofer on Broadway back in the day.  But she wound up teaching “speech” to middle school kids in the middle part of the country. 

Ms. Craven was part of the reason that amateur play license holders stress so much the need to do the playwright’s work.  Ms. Craven did a full-length play each year with the older students.  It was a “big” thing that included an evening performance for parents.  Ms. Craven wanted to accommodate all of the students who wanted to be part of the project.  Consequently she would write entire scenes to include everyone in the work.  My guess is that she never checked with the license holders to see if this would be kosher with them.  She just did it.

She encouraged me and was kind to me.  I got to do my first sound design.  Normally I wouldn’t have been allowed to be a part of the full-length play as an early-grade student.  But she allowed me to do the sound.  So I came up with LPs that I played on a turntable sitting on a small platform next to the front part of the stage.  The speaker for the music was the speaker on the turntable.  That was it.

When I got to high school, I had an amazing teacher, Andrea Stewart Leisher.  She later changed her name when she got re-married to another man, but she was always “Leisher” to those of us who worked with her.

She was incredibly supportive to me.  She encouraged all of us to do good work.  We would do a play like Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound.  We’d get together as a cast over lunch and work through the wheels within wheels mechanisms of the text.  We explored and explored. 

One day I walked into the school cafeteria.  Leisher was coming from the administrative offices on the complete other side of the cafeteria.  Seeing me, she broke into doing the full choreography with an a capella rendering of “America” from West Side Story.  She’d accompany us throughout the state going to competitions.  She was very good-humored about the whole thing.

My buddy, acting partner, and “partner in crime” in doing shows was Pete Wells. 

The Most Revered Peter Bryan Wells now serves as Apostolic Nuncio to Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, and Swaziland.  Then, he was an incredibly bright kid who did plays with me.  We did scenes together for competition.  We played opposite each other in plays at school.  For a while we worked at a local radio station together. 

Early in our college years we re-animated a local community theatre that had fallen on hard times.   By this time I had gone to the same college that Leisher had attended.  I had the idea that I since she was a good teacher, I wanted to learn from the same people that had taught her.

I had observed that the teachers were the ones who directed plays.  So I decided that I needed to go to graduate school in Directing.  In looking at the admission standards for the best Directing programs in the country, they all wanted experienced directors.   So, I needed to direct.

To that end, I and Pete decided to re-animate a local community theatre that had been dormant for many years.  I’d direct.  He’d manage.  We’d do it together.

For two summers in the early 1980s we produced ten plays over two summers.  Not quite a summer-stock schedule, but busy enough.  And we acted together.  We did Sleuth together.  I stepped down from directing shows.  I’d largely treated people more poorly than I should have.  And I made some poor choices.  But I learned an awful lot very quickly.

Later Pete directed an old-fashioned “melo-drammer.”  One dress rehearsal, the actor playing the father character showed up to rehearsal drunk and took a pee in the lobby  -- not the lobby bathroom – the lobby.  So, Pete fired him.  I came in to play the father with one rehearsal.

By that time, I had been in college several years.  I attended what was then a small program.  My teachers were Lee Hicks, Don Bristow, and Jim Poe.  Mainly what has helped me through to this day as a theatre technician I owe to Jim Poe.  He was always a thorough and careful builder and technician.  Don Bristow taught me theory and make-up, among other things.

My main teacher was Lee Hicks, however.  Hicks could have troubled relationships with students.  When I was a freshman, I was standing talking to him when another student walked up with some paperwork that needed to be signed so that person could drop a class or change into another course or something like that.  The student apologized for dropping the class as Hicks signed the paper.  As the student disappeared down the hallway, Hicks said to me, “Students think we don’t like them.  Mostly we don’t know who they are.”  He had no idea who the kid was.

My relationship with Hicks was mostly favorable and beneficial.  I was never the “star” who would be given plum roles.  He never looked at me that way.  But he did provide me with attention and opportunities to move forward toward the things that I thought I needed to do to move forward.  When he was sick, he asked me to be his assistant director for Crimes of the Heart.  As he assumed leadership of ACTF Region VI, I became one of his assistants, getting to meet the other theatre program heads in the area.  It was through Hicks that we met Molly Risso and her students.  It was through Hicks and getting to know Molly that I got my first gig at the Oklahoma Shakespeare Festival immediately after college.  It was my contacts through working for OSF that got me my first road job.  Essentially the career I’ve had sprang from Hicks and the things he was doing when I was his student.

My greatest lessons, though, came from two other teachers – both music teachers.  Edith DeBartolo and Robert Dillon taught me lessons about art and about being an artist.

Ms. DeBartolo was my piano teacher.  As a music minor, I also had Music Literature with her too.  But as a music teacher, she taught me more than any teacher I’ve ever had how to listen.  I don’t know that I’d really listened much.  Maybe I listened some.  But I can’t really say that I listened much prior to working with her.  I played a piece by Bach.  It was technically proficient in performance.  Then she said one of those simple things that rocked my world.  She said something along the lines of, “OK.  That was fine.  Now what do you want to do with it?”  What did she mean?  For years, whenever a piece had reached a level of technical proficiency, that was the time to move on.  It wasn’t that I didn’t play “old” stuff.  I did.  But it was repetition.  That was all.  She challenged me to ask how I wanted it to sound.  To answer that question, it would be necessary to actually listen to what I played.  Subsequently I learned how to listen to others so that I could better accompany singers, movers, dancers, instrumentalists, etc.  I could actually listen to what they were doing and share with them.

Robert Dillon taught Music Theory and Analysis.  One day we were studying a piano piece by Mozart.  We were analyzing the harmonic structure.  This chord was a tonic chord.  This chord was a sub-dominant chord.  Etc.  Etc.  Etc.  Endless etc.  We came upon a chord, and Dr. Dillon asked what it was.  Our heads swiveled as if on Lazy Susans.  We had no idea.  He got us to look at the chord from a variety of perspectives, which was part of the lesson.  Then he asked, what function did the chord play?  Again, our heads swirled in every direction.  He finally pointed out that Mozart put that chord there because it sounded good.  This is an incredibly simple thing to say, but earth-shaking in context at the moment I heard it.  Artists write things for all sorts of reasons – it’s unlikely, though that Mozart wrote this chord to confuse music theory students centuries in the future.  It’s our task as students of the arts to understand what we can of the artists who’ve come before us.  But in making art, our responsibility is to make art, not an analysis.

Simple things.  But they stuck with me.  The lessons in listening are what I use in my life every day, as opposed to the many other things I heard in a variety of courses which I seldom “use.”

The real benefit of those years, though, were the colleagues.  I thought then – and think now – that in some alternate universe we could have stuck together as a theatre company and could have done any play written.  Bill, Kelly, Bob, Ron, Barton, Ellen, Jean, Becky, Kelley, Scott, Rush, Shawn, Steve, Neil, and the rest of the gang were all such wonderful colleagues to have.  Some of the funniest work I’ve ever seen on any stage has been done by Bill Salyers.  Jean, Ellen, and Kelley remain the three best McGrath sisters I’ve ever seen in Crimes of the Heart (no offense to the many other fine casts I’ve seen over the years).  A number of this group were kind enough to work in plays I directed.  Bob Hudgins and Ron Cameron were kind enough to work in a doomed production of True West I produced.  Scott played El Gallo in a production of The Fantasticks I directed during a particularly low time in my life.

After graduation, I moved to the Oklahoma Shakespeare Festival ruled by a genuine grande dame of the theatre – Molly Risso.  Molly hired me to direct a commedia piece and play as cast.  In the event, I played Gonzalo in The Tempest, among other roles.  Again, the following year, I worked as her assistant director in a huge production of The Unsinkable Molly Brown – on a thrust stage.  Our mission was how to get huge scads of people on and off the stage in an instant. 

Through Molly, I met the great designer Don Hooper, as well as a wide variety of contemporaries, Sharla, Dell, Kate, Greg, Carla, and many others.  It was a robust period of work.

After working that summer, I packed good and all and moved to Iowa City.  I had hoped to enter the MFA program.  That spring I’d interviewed with Wally Chappell, and I’d been admitted to the program.  It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that, for whatever reason, Wally hadn’t been entirely straight with me.  But that was to come later in the year.  When I moved to Iowa City, I fell in with the graduate actors and the playwrights.  That is where I came to love the work of David Blakely.

Iowa provided a wider introduction to the world of theatre.  Early mornings, I taught acting.  Then I worked on new plays – participating in a different ways on dozens of new works. 

Wally provided an example of sorts.  I took the grad acting class with the MFA actors.  Why this turned out to be, I can’t say, in retrospect.  I hadn’t thought of myself as an actor, since my desire was to be a “director” and become a university teacher at the time.  But there I was with the actor nevertheless.  To be honest, they kind of scared me, as most good actors do.

Again, for whatever reason, Wally had us start with circle exercises.  As the year progressed there was seldom a time in which we didn’t do circle exercises.  It became oppressive at times.  I don’t know that there was much to be gleaned from some of the weeks of circle exercises. 

That being said, Wally did a graceful thing.  At the end of the school year, we were asked to write and present our personal manifestoes, something about what we believed about theatre and acting.  And so we each rose in turn and presented our ideas, our beliefs, and our plans.  We were done.  Silence.  We were scattered about the studio, some sitting, some reclining, some kneeling, some lying down.  One by one, Wally came to each of us and brought us to the center of the room.  There he constructed – with us – a circle.  There, he said.  You are my manifesto.  Despite some of the weeks of despising doing yet another class of circle exercises, this was a moving experience. 

And as I think back on that circle, I have much admiration for everyone who stood there.  Wendee Pratt, Todd B and Todd M, Steve, Kurt, Frank, Rose, Beverly, Dean, Lisa, and the others – all incredibly talented people.

Again, the lessons that I use every day came from H’si Ch’eng, Burnett Hopgood, and Jan Skotnicki.

Mr. Ch’eng taught Chinese theatre and also taught us a form of t’ai chi.  The first form of t’ai chi he taught us I do every single day I perform.  I learned very early that if I don’t do it before I perform, I feel wrong.  So, I do it before every performance.

Burnett Hopgood is one of the pioneers doing deep dives into Stanislavsky studies.  His dissertation was about the main concepts in Stanislavsky’s work.  He visited Iowa to give a series of lectures about Stanislavsky that illuminated the man and his work.  His influence on my life has been long and great.

Likewise, Jan Skotnicki was brought from Poland to direct Chekhov’s The Seagull.  It was the first time I’d worked with a world-class director.  I was the production’s sound designer and musician, playing Treplev’s songs on the piano in Act IV, and so on.  Most nights after rehearsal, Jan and I would repair to his office for a shot of vodka and a discussion of the day’s rehearsal.  I was impressed by his ability to understand very deeply the capacities and abilities of each of the actors.  Before rehearsals started, I was out with a few of the actors.  We’d heard about the practice – particularly in Eastern Europe and Russia – of rehearsing for months or even years before opening a show.  What would you do with all of that “extra” time?  In listening to Jan, I began to understand what you would do with that time.  And it wasn’t extra.  It was moving into another realm of theatre that was more than blocking, polishing, and moving on.  But that kind of work couldn’t be done with old-fashioned stock acting.  More subtlety was called for.

As I said, Wally had not been entirely straight with me, and I learned that Iowa was not the place for me then, so I left.

I ultimately found myself as a touring actor.  And I got to work with great directors like Drexel Riley, Paul Pierce, and Tony Medlin.

Drexel came out of Paul Baker’s work at the Dallas Theater Center in the day, among other stops on his journey.  To whole generations of actors Drexel was a generous mentor who passed on a practical sense of what can work in putting on a show in the USA.  Just as useful as learning Jan Skotnicki’s view of being able to work months on a play, I benefitted from Drexel’s ability to create a show that would work as effectively on a college campus as at an Elk’s lodge – young, old, liberal, conservative, rich, of limited means – our shows would work anywhere with anyone, and make money.

Paul and Tony, likewise were directors who knew how to make a show work with limited physical resources required by the rules of the road.  The less “stuff” you take on the road, the less that has to be loaded in and out.  And I learned incredibly valuable lessons in technique, timing, and telling a story that have been in my toolkit ever since.

It was after several years of working as an actor that I wound up back in school, finally, at Michigan State University.

I have written long ago about the passing of my mentor, Frank Rutledge.  In my work as a teacher and as a director, nearly every day Frank’s voice is in my head, giving advice about what it means to be a faculty member, giving advice on how to put up a show, teaching theatre history.

I was at Michigan State University in the early 1990s.  One day, my good friend, Lane Glenn, took us into his graduate assistant office in the upper floor of the MSU Theatre Building.  He showed us this new phenomenon – email.

I have deep gratitude for all of the people listed here, and more folks outside the theatre who have been large in my life who are too numerous to mention them all.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it was Lane’s introduction to email that changed my life in more ways than I could have guessed at the time.  I thought email was dumb. 

What an idiot I was.


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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia University. He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2019 Nathan Thomas
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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